Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Yars' Revenge (1982) - Atari 2600 and Atari: Game Over (2014)

I'm going to be honest with you here. I was born in the early-1980s. Although my parents did own an Intellivision I had no contact with that system until the '90s and well after I'd received my first video game console, the Nintendo Entertainment System. As far as the Atari 2600, I can't even recall when I saw one for the first time, but as a result of never playing one when I was a kid I just never got into the system at all.

The Atari 2600 in all its wood-grained glory
I always understood the love for that Atari 2600, but it was just before my time. And because of the video game crash in '83 they were quickly off the market and almost a distant memory by the I got my NES in '89. I had one cousin who had an Atari 2600, but it was rarely played when I visited in lieu of playing whatever NES games he had available instead.

All this to say that - although I understand why people love the Atari 2600 - I have zero nostalgia for it, and frankly, never really cared for it. Compared to what I got to play on the NES, 2600 games just seemed a little too primitive. In my mind they were mostly poorly ported arcade titles and I was never really into those particular games to begin with. I appreciated playing shooter games like Galaxian in the arcade itself, but when I saw the home port on the 2600 it never really wowed me.

A few years ago my wife got me an Atari Flashback 6 for Christmas and I suddenly had a bevy of 2600 games at my fingertips to try. Again, I found myself not so interested in the shooter games, but I discovered a new appreciation for titles like Adventure and the 2600 port of Frogger. Still, I didn't spend too much time with it, but it is permanently hooked up to what I affectionately call my "retro corner" in my home office, which consists of a flat-screen CRT, a VCR, a DVD player/recorder, and my Atari Flashback. Whenever I want to hook up another older console I hook it up to this TV, but they don't fit in the stand. The Flashback, however, fits in there nicely, so it's basically always hooked up.

The other night I was going through Netflix looking for something to watch and I realized that although I'd added it to "My List" I had never gotten around to watching Zak Penn's Atari: Game Over. The documentary takes a look at the meteoric rise of Atari in the late-70s/early-80s, the programmers producing their money-making cartridges, and the downfall of the company, seemingly signaled by the infamous E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial 2600 game release at Christmas of '82.

The Atari: Game Over poster displaying the co-ordinates of the infamous dumping site
It runs at around an hour and is a really great watch. I am a self-professed video game aficionado and like to believe I know a lot about the industry, but I learned a great deal about Atari and the effect the 2600 had on the home computing enterprise by watching this film.

The film delves into the long-lived rumour that the release of E.T. for the Atari was so bad and so poorly received that the company drove all the extra copies of the game, of which they had printed millions, and buried them in the desert in Alamogordo, NM. This story had become video game legend and had cemented the idea the E.T. is the worst video game ever made and almost single-handedly destroyed Atari.

An ad for E.T. on the 2600
Atari: Game Over focuses on three main individuals: Joe Lewandowski, the man who researched and believed he found the site of the Atari game burial, Howard Scott Warshaw, the programmer who created the E.T. cartridge, and Ernie Cline, writer and video game enthusiast. There are plenty of interviews from the people in charge of Atari at the time of the crash, as well as many other filmmakers and video game developers.

With such a short run-time, the film has a bit of a narrow scope. It's a fun watch and I liked that it focused on Howard Scott Warshaw and the effect E.T. and Atari had on his life, which was a really cool perspective and story I'd never heard before. If you're looking to understand the entirety of Atari's downfall and the video game crash, however, this film isn't going to get you there. It will whet your appetite for more information, and I think is ultimately worth the watch, but you'll need to go elsewhere for the full story.

How does this all get back to Yars' Revenge, which you see in the title of this post? Well, like I said, I was captivated by Howard Scott Warshaw's story in the film. He was brought in as one of Atari's "rockstar programmers" at the height of the 2600's popularity and - before he became synonymous with E.T. - programmed the most profitable original game for the Atari 2600 - Yars' Revenge.

Yars' Revenge box-art
Yars' Revenge started out as another Atari 2600 arcade port - the kind I mentioned I had little interest in - of Star Castle. Warshaw quickly told his superiors that he couldn't properly port that game to the home console hardware, but had come up with his own game that used a similar mechanic. He was greenlighted to then program his game, which went on to sell one million copies.

Warshaw really wanted to blend storytelling with video games, something that wasn't really being done at the time, so he came up with a whole backstory to Yars' Revenge, which was adapted into a comic and packaged with the game. It tells the story of the Yars - a race of super-advanced houseflies - that had originated on Earth, but had been mutated in space, developed their own society and culture, and inhabited several planets in another solar system. An unknown race called the Quotile attacked and destroyed one of the Yars' planets, Razak IV, and now it is up to the warriors of Yars to defend their people against the Quotile using their newly developed Zorlon Cannon. It's a fun little comic and you can check it out here.

Warshaw coding E.T. The Extraterrestrial in his home in 1982
The game is pretty simplistic. The player pilots the Yar, a flying bug-like creature, against the Quotile. The enemy is encased in a shield, which the Yar needs to either blast or munch to destroy. The Quotile has two attacks - a missile that slowly chases the Yar at all times on screen, and the "Swirl", in which the Quotile itself spins and shoots across the screen at the Yar. There is a neutral zone in the middle of the screen that the Yar can enter and becomes impervious to the missile, but also loses the ability to shoot. The neutral zone does not, however, protect from the Swirl, which can destroy the Yar at all times.

The Yar has to destroy the barrier around the Quotile and attempt to fire the Zorlon Cannon. The only way to fire it, however, is to either touch the Quotile or nibble at the shield. When the cannon becomes available you'll see it appear on the opposite side of the screen. Once fired, the cannon blast will fire directly at the Yar, so you have to pilot away from the blast after it is fired and try to bypass the barrier and hit the Quotile to progress to the next stage.

There are two screens in the game (that I saw), one with a domed barrier, and another with a strange rectangular barrier, which constantly shifts. The further you get in the game, the barrier will change colour and the enemies will become more and more difficult. For instance, in the earlier stages the Swirl is pretty easy to see coming and dodge, but later there is little warning that the Quotile is going to unleash this blast, so you have to be on your toes to dodge it.

Yar's Revenge
Directly after I finished Atari: Game Over, I found myself wanting to play... E.T.: The Extraerrestrial. I have a weird relationship with that movie (maybe some day I'll write about it) and all the talk about the video game made me want to try it out. Unfortunately, and unsurprisingly, and doesn't grace the Atari Flashback 6. However, it did have Yars' Revenge, so I decided to boot it up. I found myself playing it for hours! I have never played an Atari for that long in my life and I really enjoyed it.

With only two stages it seems like the game would be very limited, but the difficulty ramps up quite well and I found myself really challenged by the game. And what's funny is all that backstory that Warshaw wanted attached to the game really helped! My imagination combined with the comic book helped me really feel like I was a flying Yar warrior defending my race against the evil Quotile and made the game that much more enjoyable.

I can't remember my high score, but it wasn't great. I died a lot! But the main thing was that I had fun and I still want to play more! Finally, I "got" what people enjoyed about the Atari 2600. Yars' Revenge is a really fun game and not like any other flying shooter I've ever played before.

So my final verdict is that you should check out Atari: Game Over and pair it with Yars' Revenge. The film and the game both gave me a new appreciation for the Atari 2600 and they might do the same for you, too!

Hope you enjoyed,

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Kamiko (2017) - Nintendo Switch

As a palette cleanser between The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey, I decided I wanted to play something quick and simple on my Nintendo Switch. After a little searching around the web I came across Kamiko, which was just what I was looking for.

At $6.99 CAD ($4.99 USD), Kamiko is a perfectly priced, bite-sized adventure that is ideal for killing a few hours and having some fun.

You play as one of three priestesses (known as Kamiko), who have been bestowed weapons from the gods in order to smite an evil that has befallen the land. In each of the four stages, you will have to activate several Torii gates in order to open the final door and face the boss. Each stage plays out like a bit of a puzzle. There are different switches, obstacles, etc. that you have to solve in order to find your way to the Torii gates.

Yamato squaring off against one of Kamiko's devilish bosses

The game plays similar to the original Legend of Zelda games, with a top-down view of your character. There are several enemy types you'll face along the way, including long-range attackers, and enemies that just try to run into you. The bosses are almost like something from a bullet hell shooter with multiple blasts and patterns you'll have to learn and dodge.

Each of the three priestesses change the way you play the game distinctly. In a way its like having a difficulty level setting. The first Kamiko - Yamato - is given a basic sword, which slashes in an arc in front of the her making this character the easiest to use. It's pretty difficult to miss an enemy with this weapon.

The second is Uzume, who has a bow and arrow, which is slightly more difficult to use and get used to. If you fire three shots in succession, Uzume will actually fire multiple arrows for each shot which fan out in front of her, giving you a larger area of attack. It's a little tricky to alter your brain into firing at your emeny after you've completed the game as Yamato, which adds a little bit of welcome challenge.

Uzume is preparing to find the Torii gates in another stage

The third is Hinome, who has a short sword and shield. This is sort of like a medium difficulty. You don't use the shield for defence, but rather you throw it in front of you. It's quick to release so it's easier to fire than Uzume's bow, but it doesn't reach across the entire screen. It does, however, return to you so there's some added playability there using the return arc of the shield to your advantage. Also, when the shield is released you can continue to attack enemies with a stab of your short sword. This causes Himome to briefly jet forward. The combination of these weapons is destructive. I think I may have enjoyed playing as her more than Yamato and Uzume.

The gameplay is pretty straight-forward and dead simple for Kamiko. Once you've played through the game once the challenge of the puzzles is diminished, because you'll remember all the item locations making finding the Torii gates easier and easier through each run. The change of the characters weapons and play-styles adds a slight challenge, but you'll probably get used to them in the first stage. This doesn't diminish the fun, however. The game is still a great arcade action title which you'll enjoy playing with each of the priestesses.

Hinome with her short sword and shield

The game features a beautiful, bright pseudo 8-bit aesthetic, which is very eye-catching. The images are crisp and look great in both handheld and TV mode. The colours are very vibrant and everything is easy to distinguish on-screen.

One of the best parts of Kamiko is the music. It has a very small, but well-crafted soundtrack. I found some of the stages soothing and others exciting. It's all presented in a chip-tune style that perfectly suits the pseudo 8-bit look and feel of the game, pulling the whole package together.

Once you get used to the stages each run through of Kamiko can be quick, but satisfying
Kamiko is a quick hit game that you can play in a couple of hours and is well-worth the small price to play. For me, it was a nice break after the many months I spent playing Breath of the Wild, before I buckled down to complete Super Mario Odyssey. I highly recommend you give Kamiko a try.

Hope you enjoyed,

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Nostalgia Bomb! - McPizza

What was it?
In the 1980s McDonald's wanted to break into the pizza market and take on companies like Dominos and Pizza Hut, so the began testing the McPizza. It wasn't until the 90s that the test phase branched out into over 500 stores. Originally it was served as a "family-size", which was brought to the table and placed on a raised rack, but they quickly began serving it in a personal-size format, which could be included in an Extra Value Meal with fries and a drink.

McPizza ad

When was it available?
I've read that the earliest test markets actually started in the 70s, but most articles related to McPizza state that it started hitting test restaurants in the late-80s and by 1991 had branched out to around 500 stores. In Canada, it was phased out in 1999, although I know it left my local McDonald's well before that. Officially, it appears it left almost all McDonald's by the year 2000. It was ultimately removed from most McDonald's menus because it took 11 minutes to cook, which wasn't in-line with their policy of providing food as fast as possible.

What about today?
Much like the start date of McPizza, there is a lot of conflicting information about this, but up until recently my understanding was that you could still get McPizza at two locations; Pomeroy, Ohio and Owensboro, Kentucky. From what I've read, both of those restaurants served their last pizzas as of 2017, but it appears that that largest McDonald's - located in Orlando, Florida - is the only restaurant that still offers the McPizza.

Why do I remember it?
Mostly, because it was delicious.

In an Extra Value Meal
An odd thing about where I grew up is that pizza is like religion. There is no Pizza Hut or Dominos there. They would crash and burn. Everyone gets their pizza from their favourite "joint" and you'll hear many arguments as to which is the best. So when McDonald's came out with McPizza I assumed it would be garbage and would never last, but when I first had it I was hooked. That said, no one in my family would ever go to McDonald's to get a pizza, which is why the personal-sized pie was so crucial. If we all went to Mickey Ds I could get a pizza for myself!

I remember it having a cornmeal crust or something, which was unheard of where I lived. All the crusts were typically the same and I'd dare say that's how it is even today. I can't think of a place that deviates. I'd never had anything like that and I really enjoyed it. Also, I think they added parmesan to their mozzarella cheese, which was something I'd never had before and really liked as well.

McPizza is a bizarre thing, because under the lens of nostalgia and passing time it seems like everyone enjoyed it and wishes they could still get it, but that just can't be the case. I know that most articles I've read state that McDonald's removed it from their meny because of the time it took to cook, but let's real here; if the stuff was selling like gangbusters, they'd still have it on the menu.

The reality is that McDonald's took on a pretty tough market and didn't see enough upside to keep the product going. I can attest to it being good - and I consider myself a pretty tough pizza critic - but money talks and now McPizza is (pretty much) no more.

This is the box I recall
If I'm ever in Orlando, however, and I happen upon this magical McDonald's that still carries McPizza, you can be damned sure I'll be buying it and reliving my childhood for a few gooey, cheesy moments.

I hope you enjoyed,